Vintage Space Fun Fact: Gemini’s Poetry

The Mercury capsule on the left clearly influenced the design of the Gemini spacecraft on the right (as did a number of technical and managerial factors). Credit: McDonnell

In 1960, a year before Al Shepard made his ballistic flight on Freedom 7 and two years before John Glenn went into orbit on Friendship 7, NASA was already planning what to do after the Mercury program wrapped up. Mercury was limited by the capsule’s on board power source and fuel store to short orbital flights, so for its next program NASA was looking to lay a foundation in space exploration.

By 1962, a program with focused goals had emerged: NASA’s main goal would be to prove that astronauts could manoeuver their spacecraft in orbit to rendezvous and dock with another vehicle. On January 3 the new program was publicly christened Gemini, an interestingly fitting moniker.

Alex P. Nagy from NASA’s Office of Manned Spaceflight at the agency’s headquarters is credited with naming the spacecraft. He also won a celebratory bottle of scotch. His inspiration was the constellation, and the fact that Gemini seemed like a fitting name. Sometimes called “The Twins,” Gemini evoked the thought of a two-man crew. Its symbol – ♊ – was reminiscent of the program’s former working designation of Mercury Mark II.

Constellations seen from the northern hemisphere. Gemini is on the left along the ecliptic. Credit: NASA

But there’s a deeper astrological poetry to the name Nagy claimed he didn’t know when he picked Gemini.

The constellation is named for the twin brothers Castor and Pollux in Greek mythology. Gemini’s controlling planet is, fittingly, Mercury. NASA’s Mercury program similarly dictated the design, goals, and timeline of the Gemini program.

It goes further. Key traits exhibited by those born under Gemini include adaptability and mobility, two key features of NASA’s second generation spacecraft – Gemini astronauts would have to adapt to long duration missions and demonstrate mobility in orbit. Other qualities include a love for collecting knowledge – the program was designed to work out the unknowns of going to the Moon with Apollo –as well as communication and transportation, both of which are inescapable aspects of a spaceflight program. Gemini is also an air sign, fitting for a space program.

No one involved in naming Gemini was interested in or influenced by astrology, at least not openly. Which makes the program’s name an wonderfully poetic accident.

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Amy,

    I have always wondered about the derivation of the pronunciation. Gemini in almost all spoken references is pronounced “Jem-in-EYE” with the emphasis on the final syllable, pronounced as a high I. However, at NASA, the program was almost always pronounced “jem-in-EE.” I could find no reason for this pronunciation irregularity in the definitive history of the program “On The Shoulders of Titans,” and was wondering if you had ever run across an explanation.

    Martin

  2. says

    Dear Martin–Since you asked, and since yours truly is appropriately credited by Ms. Teitel as the person who suggested the name “Gemini,” I’m happy to answer your question. At a meeting not long after announcement of the name, there was a meeting at NASA Headquarters. Attendees included directors of the manned flight centers (JSC, MSFC, KSC, and Hqs officials including my immediate boss,George Low. I was there as recorder. (I was a male, and I knew Gregg shorthand.) I don’t recall who asked the question you did in your note, but George simply turned to me and asked how I pronounced it. Now you know. You can contact me at formernasa@yahoo.com if you’d like a copy of the documentation. Incidentally, I ran across this URL and your note quite by accident. 08/28/2013

    Regards, (also to Ms. Teitel)

    Al Nagy

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